Monday, February 22, 2010


Will Fitzhugh...has been fighting for more non-fiction for years.

Jay Mathews
The Washington Post

Help pick non-fiction for schools

February 22, 2010

It wasn’t until I was in my fifties that I realized how restricted my high school reading lists had been, and how little they had changed for my three children. They were enthusiastic readers, as my wife and I were. But all, or almost all, of the required books for either generation were fiction.

I am not dismissing the delights of Twain, Crane, Buck, Saroyan and Wilder, all of which I read in high school. But I think I would also have enjoyed Theodore H. White, John Hersey, Barbara Tuchman and Bruce Catton if they had been assigned.

Maybe that’s changing. Maybe rebellious teens these days are fleeing Faulkner, Hemingway, Austen, and Baldwin, or whoever is on the 12th grade English list, and furtively reading Malcolm Gladwell, David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin and other non-fiction stars.

Sadly, no.

The Renaissance Learning company released a list of what 4.6 million students read in the 2008-2009 school year, based on its Accelerated Reader program that encourages children to choose their own books. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter has given way to the hormonal allure of Stephenie Meyer’s teen vampire books, but both school and non-school books are still almost all fiction.

When I ask local school districts why this is, some get defensive and insist they do require non-fiction. But the only title that comes up with any frequency is Night, Elie Wiesel’s story of his boyhood in the Holocaust. It is one of only two nonfiction works to appear in the top 20 of Accelerated Reader’s list of books read by high schoolers. The other is A Child Called ‘It,’ Dave Pelzer’s account of his alleged abuse as a child by his alcoholic mother.

Will Fitzhugh, whose Concord Review quarterly publishes research papers by high school students, has been fighting for more non-fiction for years. I agree with him that high school English departments’ allegiance to novels leads impressionable students to think, incorrectly, that non-fiction is a bore. That in turn makes them prefer fiction writing assignments to anything that could be described by that dreaded word “research.”

A relatively new trend in student writing is called “creative nonfiction.” It makes Fitzhugh shudder. “It allows high school students (mostly girls) to complete writing assignments and participate in ‘essay contests’ by writing about their hopes, experiences, doubts, relationships, worries, victimization (if any), and parents, as well as more existential questions such as ‘How do I look?’ and ‘What should I wear to school?’” he said in a 2008 essay for

Educators say non-fiction is more difficult than fiction for students to comprehend. It requires more factual knowledge, beyond fiction’s simple truths of love, hate, passion and remorse. So we have a pathetic cycle. Students don’t know enough about the real world because they don’t read non-fiction and they can’t read non-fiction because they don’t know enough about the real world.

Educational theorist E.D. Hirsch Jr. insists this is what keeps many students from acquiring the communication skills they need for successful lives. “Language mastery is not some abstract skill,” he said in his latest book, The Making of Americans. “It depends on possessing broad general knowledge shared by other competent people within the language community.”

I think we can help. Post comments here, or send an email to, with non-fiction titles that would appeal to teens. I will discuss your choices in a future column. I can see why students hate writing research papers when their history and science reading has been confined to the flaccid prose of their textbooks. But what if they first read Longitude by Dava Sobel or A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar? What magical exploration of reality would you add to your favorite teenager’s reading list?

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Monday, February 15, 2010


Malcolm Gladwell, in Outliers, cites K. Anders Ericsson’s research on the difference between amateur and professional pianists, and writes: “Their research suggests that once a musician has enough ability to get into a top musical school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That’s it. And what’s more, the people at the very top don’t just work harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.”

We see those who labor constantly to relieve our students from working too hard academically. They worry about stress, strain, overwork, joyless lives, etc. But that only seems to apply to academics. When it comes to sports, there is nearly universal satisfaction with young athletes who dedicate themselves to their fitness and the skills needed for their sport(s) not only after school, but during the summer as well.

While reading nonfiction books in the summer has not yet been widely accepted or required, high school athletes are expected to run, lift weights, stretch, and shoot hoops (or whatever it takes for their sports) as often in the summer as they can find the time. Perhaps if we applied the seriousness with which we take sports for young people to their pursuit of academic achievement, we would find more students reading complete nonfiction books in the summer and fewer needing remedial courses later.

Friday, February 12, 2010


Jay Mathews
The Washington Post

Posted at 5:30 AM ET, 2/9/2010

Students should read non-fiction.

Snowed in over the weekend with no chance of newspaper delivery, I had a taste of what my mornings will be like when we move to California. I will have to read the Post online. It is, I learned, blessedly convenient: click on “TODAY’S NEWSPAPER” at the very top of the home page and you get each story lined up from front page to last.

People like me worry that the newspaper habit many of us picked up in school will be lost in future generations. I remember being required to read enough of the San Francisco Chronicle front page when I was in elementary school to pass a short current events quiz. In high school, there were many projects and papers that required familiarity with the news.

For the next few weeks I am going to explore the future of news reading—and more broadly the whole matter of non-fiction in schools—to see if there isn’t a way to both preserve my generation’s allegiance to written news coverage with some depth and detail, and to add to schools something they have never had—a mission to instill a love of book-length non-fiction.

I hope you have some ideas about this, and can point me to teachers and schools that provide good examples. Newspapers may someday die, but my weekend experience proved that great news writing will survive online. Fiction has an iron grip on school reading assignments, but the histories and biographies that have made my adult reading so often a joy should be able to win more student attention than they have up to now.

Tablets, iPads, investigative web sites, news cooperatives—all the changes are bewildering. But we can’t let schools wander away from connecting students to writing about what is real, and keeping them in touch with the forces that will change their lives, and those of their children and grandchildren. We just need some creative ways to do it.

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By Jay Mathews | February 9, 2010; 5:30 AM ET | Permalink | Comments (7) 
Categories: Jay on the Web | Tags: decline of newspaper reading, lack of non-fiction in schools, news on the web, non-fiction reading in schools, non-fiction writing

Friday, February 5, 2010


“Also, FYI, most of the ‘get into college’ publications I read referred to The Concord Review as the ‘Intel Science Competition’ of the humanities and the only serious way to get academic work noticed.”

“You should know that the Oxford interview tutors [from Christ Church College] for politics [PPE] spent a lot of time talking to me about my TCR essay in the interview.”

[This author of a 15,000-word paper I published last year, won an Emerson Prize and is now a student at Christ Church College, Oxford.]

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review
February 3, 2010

I got a call the other day from the head football coach at one of the larger state universities.

He said, after the usual greetings, “I’ve got some real problems.”

“Like what?” I asked.

“The players I am getting now are out of shape, they don't know how to block or tackle, they can’t read the playbook and they can’t follow their assignments.”

“That does sound bad. What is your record this season?”

“The teams we play seem to have similar problems, so all our games are pretty sad affairs, ending in scoreless ties.”

“Also,” he told me, “During breaks in practice, most of them are text-messaging their friends, and almost half of them just drop out of college after a year or two !”

“Have you talked to any of the high school coaches who send you players?”

“No, I don’t know them.”

“Have you visited any of the high school games or practices?”

“No, I really don’t have time for that sort of thing.”

“Well, have you heard there is a big new push for Common National Athletic Standards?”

“No, but do you think that will help solve my problems? Are they really specific this time, for a change?”

“Absolutely,” I said. “They want to require high school students, before they graduate, to be able to do five sit-ups, five pushups, and to run 100 yards without stopping. They also recommend that students spend at least an hour a week playing catch with a ball!”

“That is a start, I guess, but I don’t think it will help me much with my problem. My U.S. players have just not been prepared at all for college football. I have a couple of immigrant kids, from Asia and Eastern Europe, who are in good shape, have been well coached at the secondary level, and they have a degree of motivation to learn and determination to do their best that puts too many of our local kids to shame.”

“Well,” I said, “what do you think of the idea of getting to know some of the coaches at the high schools which are sending you players, and letting them know the problems that you are having?”

“I could do that, I guess, but I don’t know any of them, and we never meet, and I am really too busy at my level, when it comes down to it, to make that effort.”

[If we were talking about college history professors, this would not be fiction. They do complain about the basic knowledge of their students, and their inability to read books and write term papers. But like their fictional coaching counterpart, they never talk to high school history teachers (they don’t know any), they never visit their classrooms, and they satisfy themselves with criticizing the students they get from the admissions office. Their interest in National Common Academic Standards does not extend to their suggesting that high school students should read complete nonfiction books and write a serious research paper every year. In short, they, like the fictional head coach, don’t really care enough to find out why students are so poorly prepared for college that half of them drop out, and that most of them do not arrive on campus prepared to do college work. They are really too busy, you see...]

Monday, February 1, 2010

WINTER 2009 ISSUE; Houston, Texas

Commentary: Recognizing Good High School
Scholars, Writers and Researchers
22 January 2010 MichaelS
The Concord Review

1.22.1—Michael F. Shaughnessy—I am continually amazed by the work of Will Fitzhugh and
The Concord Review. The current issue just arrived and in reviewing it, I can only say that I am amazed at the depth and rigor of the scholarship and topics that are presented in The Concord Review.

Michael F. Shaughnessy

Eastern New Mexico University

Portales, New Mexico

I need to acknowledge these students, their papers, and their high schools from the Winter 2009 issue, (#80):

Lara Mitra wrote on “The State of Pakistan”. She hails from Sidwell Friends School in Washington D.C.

Daniel Stein wrote on the case of “Morse v. Frederick”. He attends La Jolla Country Day School, in La Jolla, California.

Daniel Solecki contributed a paper on “The Rise and Fall of Cahokia”. He attends Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey.

Jonathan Kaplowitz wrote on “Andersonville Prison”. He also attends Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey.

Leila Pribay of the American School of Antananarivo wrote about the “History of Madagascar”.

Daniel F. Webber researched the “War of 1812”. His high school was the Blake School in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Todd Brenner contributed a paper on “Northern Ireland”. He attends Horace Greeley High School in Chappaqua, New York.

Mary Peeler of St. Mary’s Episcopal School in Memphis Tennessee wrote on “Missionaries in China”.

Michael Richardson of Harvard-Westlake School in North Hollywood, California wrote on “Arquebus in Japan”.

John Randolph Thornton of Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Connecticut wrote on “ Operation Ajax”.

Christiane Henrich of Marblehead High School in Marblehead, Massachusetts wrote on “Civil War Medicine”.

All of the parents, teachers, mentors, principals and counselors should be commended for encouraging this scholarship, writing and research. It is good to see these fine students get recognition for their scholarly contributions to their field and this reflects positively on all of the teachers that they may have encountered over the years—since the papers reflect not only on writing, but on spelling, thinking, reading, and research skills as well as on writing skills. While it may be a high school teacher who encouraged these students to submit their work, their foundational skills were provided over a long period of time and those teachers who contributed to these skills should also be acknowledged and recognized. And of course, Will Fitzhugh should be commended for his hard work in bringing this all to fruition.